Sometimes, one bite of something amazing can shift you onto a new culinary adventure. In my case, it was the taste of a homemade raw-food chocolate-coconut macaroon that had been “cooked” in a dehydrator.
The ingredients included coconut flakes and coconut butter, raw cacao powder and raw agave nectar...nothing fancy. But between the texture (smooth and creamy), the taste (divine) and the fact that all ingredients were not only “raw” but also healthy, I was hooked and needed to know more.
The source of the macaroon was Mary Jane Derex, a Morton Grove-based interior designer who has specialized in for the past eight years. Mary Jane, who added dehydrated food to her mostly vegan diet nearly two years ago, agreed to share with me what she's learned.
“When you dehydrate food slowly, at low temperatures (generally between 95ºF and 120ºF), it preserves the living enzymes your body uses for digestion,” Mary Jane told me. “Without those, your body will draw on its own enzyme reserves to handle digestion—reserves that it might otherwise use to heal and regenerate.”
Mary Jane, a slim 54-year-old with short gray hair and and a calm demeanor, can't remember the last time she caught a cold. About 80 percent of the food she prepares is raw—and of that, about a quarter goes thru the dehydrating process.
“I probably make one or two batches a week,” says Mary Jane, who was first introduced to the concept of a raw food diet through a class at a Chicago healthy eating shop called Karyn's Raw. “It doesn't take that long to mix up, but the dehydrating time can range from 12 to 24 hours depending on the amount of moisture in the food.”
Easy foods to dehydrate include fruits and vegetables of all kinds–the process gives them a leathery texture, and is a great way to preserve items if you happen to overbuy at the . Fun foods include snacks of all kinds, such as trail bars that cost the proverbial arm-and-leg at the grocery store
Five Tips For Getting Started
Here are five equipment-y considerations for anyone interested in adding dehydrated foods to their culinary repertoire.
1. Dehydrator or Fancy Oven: Mary Jane dehydrates using her oven, a top-of-the-line model made by Viking that includes low heat and a gentle air current for efficient drying. By contrast, countertop food dehydrators range in price from about $30 to more than $300, depending on the size, shape and functionality. The raw-food cookbooks I consulted all recommend a brand called Excalibur, which features rectangular drying trays, a fan to circulate air, a thermometer that lets you adjust the heat plus a timer.
2. Circular Vs. Rectangular Dehydrators: While circular dehydrators tend to be less expensive, keep in mind that despite their multiple levels, you'll have less room to lay out food on each tray. Also, the center post takes up a lot of room and can make it hard to position larger pieces of food. By contrast, rectangular units with trays are ideal for long strips or pieces—say, beef jerky, flowers on the stem or cuttings from your herb garden.
3. Fan Placement: Experts recommend food dehydrators that have a side or top-mounted heater and fan. Units that have the fan at the bottom will soon become the victim of drippings from your food items.
4. Related Dehydrating Gear: The better-equipped your kitchen, the easier the dehydrating adventure. A book by Stephanie Tourles called Raw Energy: 124 Raw Food Recipes For Energy Bars, Smoothies and Other Snacks to Supercharge Your Body (Storey Publishing, 2009), suggests the following labor-savers in addition to your dehyrator: blender, spice grinder, food processor, hand-powered food chopper, grater, juicer, mandoline and spiral slicer.
5. Read And Research: Being a cautious type where laying out big bucks for a piece of equipment I've never seen or used, my first stop for more dehydrator info (after Mary Jane) was the library and the Internet. In addition to Raw Energy, I also found an online resource called The Raw Foods Witch.